Tracing Trails of Blood on Ice: Commemorating "The Great Escape" in 1861-62 of Indians and Blacks into Kansas

By Johnson, Willard B. | Negro History Bulletin, January-December 2001 | Go to article overview

Tracing Trails of Blood on Ice: Commemorating "The Great Escape" in 1861-62 of Indians and Blacks into Kansas


Johnson, Willard B., Negro History Bulletin


My heart raced and emotions surged before I consciously grasped the meaning of what I was reading in that footnote. Reading all the footnotes had become routine for me, because ages ago I learned that important information about my people and my interests would more often than not be buried there, if mentioned at all. But, here was something really startling to me--mention of Humboldt, Kansas. That tiny southeast Kansas town had been the lifelong hometown of my grandmother, Gertrude Stovall (who was 101 years old when she died in 1990), and it is where I plan to be buried, amidst five previous generations of my mother's family. Here it was being specifically proposed as the place for an event that, had it occurred, might very significantly have impacted if not altered American history during the Civil War.

The footnote quoted a letter to President Lincoln from emissaries of Opothleyahola, a legendary leader of the traditionalist faction of the Muskogee Indians (whom the whites called "Creeks"). I had come to focus on this leader in my quest to understand the famous "Trails of Tears" over which almost all of the Indians of the southeastern states had trekked when they were forced out of their traditional homeland to "Indian Territory" (now Oklahoma). (1)

In the letter, the Native American leader was proposing to convene all the mid-western Indian tribes in a gigantic General Council meeting, to demonstrate their continued loyalty to the Union and to secure enforcement of the treaties that his people had signed with the United States government decades before. Now they needed to meet to make good on those pledges. Of all places, Opothleyahola proposed to hold that meeting in Humboldt! (2)

In researching the story behind this note, I was able to tie together many disjointed strands of family and folk history. The answers to questions such as why it was that so much of the black family folklore of this region spoke so vaguely of having Indian connections; how it was that some of our black families seemed to have been among the first settlers in that area of Kansas; how it was that some spoke of having come through Indian Territory; and why and how it was that after the Civil War so many black families returned to or stayed in Indian Territory became more clear.

Understanding the connections between African Americans and Native Americans is difficult and sometimes painful because these connections were quite complex and ranged from marriage, brotherhood, and adoption into families, to Indian enslavement of blacks. (3) That many African Americans had shared the suffering of Native Americans on the Trail of Tears had come to my attention through the writings of a family friend, former Cherokee principal chief, Ms. Wilma Mankiller. (4) Many of the blacks who were forcibly relocated with the Indians were natural or adopted family members, or incorporated communities, but perhaps as many as four thousand of them had been slaves. (5) They shared all the ordeals of the removals. (6)

Chief Mankiller had pointed out that the role of blacks in this story was not widely known and had never been prominently commemorated. That prompted me to attempt to correct this fault by proposing such a commemoration to the Kansas Institute for African American and Native American Family History (KIAANAFH), which I had founded in 1991, in part to honor the memory of my Grandmother Stovall, to preserve and use her rich collection of stories and memorabilia and that of other long-established families in the area, and to better understand and teach the history of the African American pioneers in Kansas. (7)

Many of us in the Institute were Kansas-connected African American educators and religious leaders who had heard mention of Indian connections and long marches in our own family folklore, but we knew no details. The ordeals blacks had shared with Indians, just as those of slavery itself, became muted in if not dropped from, the conversation of our people as they attempted to forget the past and look resolutely forward to better days. …

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